I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad
For two seasons now, Cullen Bohannon has been hard at work trying to ensure the creation of America’s first transcontinental railroad on the Emmy nominated AMC series Hell On Wheels. In the face of tragedies and unforgiving deadlines, he’s persevered…much like FuseFX’s team of skilled CG artists, who have been laboring away behind the scenes to bring this historical drama to vivid life. Co-Founder, Senior Artist and Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Fotter has overseen the company’s growth since it first formed in 2006, and nurtured it through various collaborations with noteworthy productions like Lie To Me, Big Love and United States of Tara. Wheels, however, provided the team with some rather unique challenges. Among them, creating a CG train so convincing audiences aren’t able to distinguish it from the physical locomotive used on-set. And then, in the recent second season finale, allowing it to cross a massive non-existent gorge. Having risen to the occasion, Fotter took a few moments to reflect on the secrets behind FuseFX’s success, explain how the finale’s most startling effects sequences were achieved and share what he’d like to see in season three.
VFXWorld: How many projects do you currently have on your plate?
Jason Fotter: We just finished work on Sinister, a Feature that came out around Halloween. A trailer was just released for a new film called Dark Skies, and we’re doing all the visual effects work on that. In television, we’re working on shows like American Horror Story Season Two, Last Resort, Criminal Minds, Glee, Revolution and The New Normal.
VFXW: You’ve also worked on The Good Wife and Mike & Molly. You wouldn’t think some of these shows even had visual effects...
JF: Most productions require visual effects these days. We do invisible visual effects on a number of shows you wouldn’t expect. For Glee, we’ve done some crowd replication work where they have a couple of hundred extras and they need to fill a stadium. We’ll shoot them all tiled up and make the stadium look full, and there are also production fixes and that kind of stuff. It’s not big, sexy work but it’s regular work, and keeps everybody busy. Shows like Hell on Wheels, on the other hand, have big-time visual effects.
VFXW: How did you first become involved with Hell on Wheels? Had you already developed a relationship with the producers?
JF: Most of our work comes from relationships we have between the three partners, Dave Altenau, Tim Jacobsen and myself. Occasionally we’ll get a call out of the blue, but that’s not the way the business works. The business is built around relationships with people you can trust. We’ve been with Hell on Wheels since day one.
VFXW: Do you enjoy working on a show set in the post-Civil War era?
JF: I do! This time period is really fun and rewarding to work on, for me. It’s gritty and it’s dirty, you know? You can really have fun.
VFXW: Speaking of gritty, didn’t some of you also work on HBO’s Carnivàle?
JF: We weren’t a company during Carnivàle, but the main founder of FuseFX, Dave Altenau, was the Visual Effects Supervisor for Carnivàle. The three of us also worked on Deadwood, which is probably why producers were confident in our ability to realize the effects needed for Wheels. There are a lot of similarities between the look of Carnivàle, and Deadwood and Hell on Wheels.
VFXW: The recent second season finale of Wheels featured some very impressive shots of the train crossing a massive gorge. How far in advance did you pre-plan the look of that sequence?
JF: Well, Wheels has a visual effects supervisor on their staff named Bill Kent, and we worked directly with him throughout the whole season planning all the visual effects. We knew from the very first episode that the finale was going to be this big crossing of the gorge. There were some shots in previous episodes showing the gorge, so we started to build it very early on in the season. It was nice to be able to have the lead-time and be able to plan accordingly.
JF: I think we had a good six months. The thing is, we knew we would be doing it but we didn’t necessarily know what they were going to shoot, what the angles were going to be and how it would be implemented. So, we made the model of the bridge – obviously we had the train already built for other shots in the show – and we did what we could until the episode came in. I would say 30% of the work had been prepped and was ready to go.
VFXW: Did having to show the gorge into two different lighting situations complicate things?
JF: It did. When you’re building something, a lot of times you’re building it from one angle or for one lighting set-up. In CG we have the ability to light many different ways but there’s particulars on each shot that are what make it look real, so it was challenging to do. In episode 209 we had to do the gorge in full daytime, and then for 210 we had to quickly turn around and do it at night. And both of these episodes were aired back-to-back, so there was an even more compressed schedule once we started the shots.